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Peter Porter

When Petrus Borel led Victor Hugo’s private ‘claque’ into the theatre of the Comédie-Française in 1830 for the opening performance of Hugo’s play Hernani, he and the others of the Romantic ‘push’ fully intended their actions to precipitate the death of classicism in French theatre. They succeeded. Had Peter Porter been in the audience, one wonders where he would have positioned himself between the Romantic shock troops (in part driven by the compulsions of the Petit Cénacle) and the classicist critics who panned the play and all it stood for in the press the next day. The performance and the attendant conflicts became known as ‘La Bataille D’Hernani’.

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Jonathon Otis – a true believer

The winner of the 2008 ABR Reviewing Competition is Jonathon Otis for his review of Julian Barnes’s memoir, Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Mr Otis receives $1000 and future commissions in the magazine. Second prize, valued at $250, goes to Elizabeth Campbell for her review of Brook Emery’s poetry collection Uncommon Light. Third prize, a set of Black Inc. books, goes to Alexis Harley for her review of Janet Frame’s novel Towards Another Summer.

The competition attracted 150 entries – a forty per cent increase from 2005. The selection of subjects under review was impressively vast, ranging from national and international fiction to ethics, the economy and even gastronomy. Religion, notably, was a popular subject; we received numerous reviews of Christopher Hitchens. There were multiple reviews of Ian McEwan and J.M. Coetzee. Interestingly, death was a popular subject.

Peter Rose judged the competition with Rebecca Starford. The Editor remarked: ‘This competition gets better and better. I’m pleased we attracted more entries, but the main purpose of this competition is to foster greater interest in the art of reviewing, to encourage new reviewers and to replenish the ranks of Australian critics. The standard this year was markedly higher than in previous years; the long list was extensive. We have identified about two dozen new reviewers for ABR. We’ll certainly present this award again in 2009.’

Jonathan Otis, a Melbourne-based writer with an abiding interest in genre, had this to say on learning of his win: ‘I feel a quiet, comforting elation. I am a true believer in literature’s life-affirming qualities. For me, ABR exemplifies vigilance through art in Australia. I am thrilled to have won the competition and for the opportunity to contribute to such an esteemed literary review.’

Jonathon Otis’s review appears on page 42. He will write for us again in 2009.

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Our landlord’s man has let us off this time,
        We’re not expelled.
Victorians liked their mortar made with lime,
        Our walls have held.

A review is more like a conversation than an overview from an Academy, and conversations often start with a salient point leading on to judgement. I suggest readers of David Malouf’s new collection should turn straight to page twenty-five and encounter a spray of short poems, titled ‘Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian’ ... ... (read more)

Dennis Altman

In any given year we will read but a tiny handful of potential ‘best books’, so this is no more than a personal selection. Here are two novels that stand out: Stephen Eldred-Grigg’s Shanghai Boy (Vintage) and Hari Kunzru’s Tranmission (Penguin). Both speak of the confusion of identity and emotions caused by rapid displacement across the world. The first is the account of a middle-aged New Zealand teacher who falls disastrously in love while teaching in Shanghai. Transmission takes a naïve young Indian computer programmer to the United States, with remarkable consequences. From a number of political books, let me select two, both from my own publisher, Scribe, which offers, I regret, no kickbacks. One is George Megalogenis’s The Longest Decade; the other, James Carroll’s House of War. Together they provide a depressing but challenging backdrop to understanding the current impasse of the Bush–Howard administrations in Iraq.

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Welcome to the feast, piccolo pasero,
A feast that never ends, of loyalty and treachery.
Two are sold for a farthing, little sparrow

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Peter Porter, in his introduction to John Kinsella’s new collection, notes that ‘we are all familiar with the surface details of American life. Kinsella does not have to footnote his poem: we recognise his instances immediately … We all speak American.’ Given that Kinsella now lives and works in the United States, Porter also identifies ‘the disillusion at seeing a great exemplar close up’ as one likely catalyst behind the poetic polemic that constitutes this book. Yet it is the surface, the broad impressionistic sweep that we in Australia have absorbed over decades of exposure to American life in our newspapers, magazines, television programmes and popular music, with which Kinsella often engages. One senses that the poet, whether up close or at a distance, would find much about the United States with which to take issue. Nevertheless, his engagement with, and rupturing of, surface in this long poem, or sequence of poems, seems apt. Kinsella smatters the text with allusions to film (ranging from the Marx brothers to Carrie), popular music (George Gershwin to Jefferson Airplane) and numerous other trappings of American life. In doing so, he takes popular culture’s immersion in artifice and turns it against itself.

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What works you did will be yourself when you
Have left the present, just as everything
The past passed to the present must become
A terrible unstoppable one blend
Of being there (the world) and not to be
(The Self). Grow old along with me, the best
Is bet to be – the worst (of course) lack(s) all
Conviction, as the poet mistranscribed,
Storming a grave to satisfy his pride.
They love me, all my words, despite how often
I made fools of them, betrayed them, begged
Forgiveness of them. They are like the million grubs
Which swarm around their Queen. I file them in
Wide boxes where they wait their Master’s Voice,
Accusing and defending. A letter plans
To burst in sullen flame, its heat conserved
By what was written once – but chiefly silence
Triumphs under missing banners – death
Will be the one unmentionable
Impossibility. What happened lives
Parenthetically and privately.

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To celebrate the best books of 2005 Australian Book Review invited contributors to nominate their favourite titles. Contributors include Morag Fraser, Peter Porter, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Nicholas Jose and Chris Wallace-Crabbe.

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Comedy isn’t the only art that requires good timing. Poetry also requires it. Indeed, poetry might be partly defined as the art of giving things away at the right moment. Illustrating this we have The Best Australian Poetry 2005. In this elegant anthology, we find Peter Goldsworthy’s inspired description of our planet: ‘Our earthen dish is seven parts water / one part china, and a tiny bit japanned.’ We also find Brett Dionysius on the 175-year-old tortoise Harriet, which, having outlived Charles Darwin, thinks: ‘Now I’m with Steve Irwin at Australia Zoo. / I Harriet, time-lord tortoise: outlive him too.’ We find Jennifer Harrison’s arresting description of ‘grammar’s lovely utterly cold snow’. We find Keith Harrison’s ‘kind of stretched villanelle’ (as he describes it), which begins: ‘The summer night is dangerous and deep.’ We find the unsettling climax of Aileen Kelly’s ‘His Visitors’, in which ‘fetid ivies’ ‘reach up and suck out the light’. We find Anthony Lawrence’s poem about the Wandering Albatross, with its reference to ‘the compass glass of its eye’. And we find the terrible, uncomic climax of Judith Beveridge’s powerful poem ‘The Shark’.

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